Disclaimer: I don't own the DCMK characters


Racing Dreams

Part 5

Hakuba Saguru showed up at their hangar the day of their first preliminary race. With him, he had a securely locked briefcase with an official looking stamp on its side. The stamp was the logo of the Horizon magazine as he was still a reporter even if he was an investigator beneath it all. Inside the briefcase was yet another locked box. And inside that box was a tiny chip laid in a hollow at the center of a velvet cushion.

"This is the monitoring device," he explained to Shinichi. "It needs to be attached to the roof of the hover craft as close to its center of gravity as possible without being inside the craft."

Shinichi picked up the chip and turned it over in his fingers. It was a delicate piece of work that weighed very little, yet its significance made it heavy in his hands.

"You're sure that it will not interfere with the hover racer's functions in any way?"

"I give you my word."

"I'll attach it before the race. But I would like to have a copy of whatever information you guys gather with it."

The blonde blinked, apparently taken aback. "I'm not sure—"

"If you won't do at least that much for us then you can go ask someone else for help," Shinichi said firmly.

Hakuba was silent for a moment before he nodded. "You're right. It would be unfair of us to refuse to share information that you help us gather. However, the program is very sophisticated. You may not be able to read the data on your own."

"We won't know unless we try."

The blonde cracked a smile at that. "Indeed. I will make sure that you are provided with a copy of the data. Is there anything else I can help you with."

"Do you have a complete list of the racers and mechanics associated with Noir Foundation teams?"

"I have a list, but I cannot guarantee that it is complete. Am I right in assuming that you would like a copy of that too?"

"I would."

"Right then. I will have everything sent to your suite by tomorrow."

"Thank you."

"You are very welcome. I wish you and your team the best of luck."

Kaito passed the part-time reporter on his way back into their hangar. He raised an eyebrow when he noticed the blonde was actually smiling. His impression of Hakuba from their meeting the other day had been that the man was a stiff, uptight, humorless bore, albeit one with its uses.

"What were you guys talking about?" he asked as he came up beside the hover racer. Shinichi glanced down from where he had climbed on top of the craft then went back to positioning the monitoring device.

"He brought us the monitor. I asked for a copy of the information they have on the foundation's teams as well as whatever they get from this, and he said he'd have it sent to our rooms."

"That was cooperative of him. I thought law enforcement preferred to keep civilians out of the thick of things."

"They probably do, and for good reason, but we're in the thick of things, as you put it, already. Therefore it's only right that we learn as much as we can."

"I see your point."

On Shinichi's insistence, they spent the next hour before they had to head to the race track running tests to make sure that the new addition wouldn't affect their hover craft's performance. It wasn't near as much time as Shinichi would have liked, but it was all they had. All too soon, they were driving the transporter across one of the city's magnificent bridges into the wilderness that was the body and soul of the Red Diamond.

"This is it," Kaito remarked as they stood beside the hover racer at the starting line. All around them, other teams too were readying themselves for the battle ahead. Only a few meters away, Hattori was chatting with three of his teammates. He had been chosen to be their tag team partner for this race. "It all starts here."

"I know."

"How about a hug in case this is the last time we see each other?" he suggested.

"That is not funny!" Shinichi snapped, face reddening, though for once it was more in anger than embarrassment. "Don't even joke about things like that!"

Kaito looked suitably ashamed. "Sorry. I guess it was a bit tasteless."

Shinichi relaxed a little, eyes downcast. Kaito was just trying to figure out what he could say to break the awkward tension when the mechanic suddenly took a deep breath, stepped forward, and put his arms around Kaito. The embrace lasted less than a heartbeat, and Shinichi's face was flushed pink as he hurriedly backed away, but for Kaito it had been a split second of perfection.

"Be careful," Shinichi mumbled, his throat clenched and his heart racing. "Please. For me…"

"I will," Kaito replied, and he meant it. "I have far too many things I still have to do to go kicking the bucket." After all, he added silently to himself, he still had to make Shinichi his.

Climbing into the hover racer, Kaito waited for his fellow racers to take their places. Half the group was being directed to a station farther down the track where they would await the arrival of their teammates. It was a simple relay setup except that the baton was a specially designed, semi-magnetic ball that needed to be balanced on top of the hover crafts as they flew. He took the time to clear his mind. While he was ecstatic at the revelation that Shinichi may well be starting to return his feelings, he kind of wished that he had made the discovery after the race as opposed to before. Fantasizing about kissing Shinichi senseless wasn't going to help him concentrate on the race. He needed to focus.

This was the first race of the Red Diamond after all, and he intended to start strong (and continue strong, and finish at the top, but that was for later).

X

"Whoohoo! We rock!" Hattori cheered as he raised his glass of spicy cider in a toast to his teammates. There were almost twenty of them packed around the table, and their united cheers drowned out all other sounds in the restaurant.

Tucked in a corner of the group, Shinichi buried his nose in his mug, feeling slightly at a loss. He and Kaito had been invited to join the group because of their current alliance with the team and the fact that they were celebrating joint victories, but while he appreciated the gesture, social gatherings had never been his strong suit. Beside him Kaito was talking animatedly with a girl whose name Shinichi hadn't caught. Most of their new friends were in awe of the indigo-eyed racer. Being one of only three people who had taken first place in all six preliminary rounds so far, it was safe to say that Kaito had won their respect.

"Um, excuse me."

Startled, Shinichi turned to find the boy seated to his other side looking at him. "Can I help you?"

The bespectacled youth, Hondo Eisuke if Shinichi recalled correctly, looked confused. "Oh, no, I was just wondering if you were okay. You haven't eaten anything. We can order some other dishes if you'd like."

Shinichi blushed. "No, really, I'm fine. Nothing's wrong with the food you guys chose. I'm just not very hungry."

"But your partner said that you two haven't had anything since breakfast."

Shinichi blinked. Oh, right, Kaito had said something of the sort when they'd accepted the party invitation. He was kind of surprised that Eisuke remembered the passing comment though. The gangly boy was sharper than he looked.

The thought had no sooner crossed Shinichi's mind then he felt guilty. He should know better than to judge someone by their appearance.

A heavy arm landed across Shinichi's shoulders and he stiffened before he realized it was Kaito.

"Just grab him some of those fruit sandwiches," the racer said, waving at the plate by Eisuke's elbow. "And some of that pasta over there too. That one's good."

Before Shinichi could say a word, the plate in front of him had been loaded with an assortment of foods. Not only that, but Hattori had reached across the table and refilled his mug as well.

"Come on, we're celebratin' here," the dark-skinned racer said with a grin. "And refueling the tanks for round two. Can't go to war on an empty stomach, right?"

"Don't call it a war, Heiji," Kazuha admonished, wrinkling her nose. "It sounds too violent. Racing is supposed to be a competition of skill conducted with respect and good sportsmanship."

"Yeah, it is," Heiji agreed. "But it's also a war."

The two fell to friendly bickering. Their teammates watched in fond amusement before ignoring them. Free entertainment was nice and all, but the food was getting cold.

Shinichi was prepared to settle back into his peaceful corner to eat when once again, one of the others accosted him. This time it was the girl that Kaito had been talking to.

"So do you like the food?" she asked, leaning around Kaito to speak to him. "The pasta's a bit rich in my opinion, though it's still decent. What you should really try is this shrimp salad over here. If you pass me your plate, I can get you some."

"Oh, no, really, this looks like too much food as it is, but thank you."

The rest of the evening passed in cheerful chatter and too much good food. Shinichi found himself being dragged into the conversations despite himself. Strangely, he found he didn't mind. For the first time in, oh, forever, he didn't feel awkward at a party. It was…kind of nice.

"So did you have fun?" Kaito asked as he held the door open for his smaller companion. Outside, the sky had long since plunged into darkness. There was only a sliver of a moon tonight, but the city had lights enough to gild the streets with gold and honey.

"I did," Shinichi said, his own surprise and wonder at the truth of it evident in his smile.

Kaito grinned and ruffled his hair. "That's good. But don't get too attached yet. We still have to beat them to win."

X

It was already the last round of the preliminaries, and nothing strange had happened. Truth be told, Shinichi hadn't expected anything to—not this early. People who wanted to win at all costs wouldn't pull out their trump card so early in the game. Doing so would greatly increase the chances of them being caught, especially if they needed to use their mystery tool again. Knowing all this, however, didn't mean that Shinichi had been idle.

What time he didn't spend working on repairing and tuning up their hover racer, he spent studying the information that Hakuba and his colleagues sent to them. As promised, they received a copy of all the data collected during a race the morning after the race itself delivered directly to their suite. The packages always arrived at exactly ten o'clock in the morning—not a minute early and not a minute late.

"I think this guy's a real weirdo," Kaito said as he set the latest package down on the coffee table.

Shinichi stared at him over the rim of his mug. "Why? Because he keeps his promises?"

"No, I'm serious! I mean, punctuality's all well and good, but when you start wasting time making sure packages like these always arrive at exactly the same time, on the dot, every single time. Well~, that's when you should realize that you need to see a shrink."

"That's not a very nice thing to say. I don't think he's that bad. It was good of him to agree to give us all this information."

"He didn't offer to though. You had to ask for it."

"I'm sorry, is this important?"

"No, I guess it isn't."

They opened the package and spread out the many neat stacks of assorted files, data disk cases, and photographs. They had been teaching themselves to read the admittedly complex formulas the scientists who built the monitor used to parcel out information. It wasn't easy, but between the two of them, they were really starting to get the hang of it.

Kaito let his eyes wander over the many papers now strewn across the tabletop between them. He chose a stack at random. "So what've we got today?"

"It looks about the same as last time," Shinichi murmured, poring over a pack of charts.

"Since nothing happened, I'd say that's to be expected. We'd have more to worry about if it recorded something weird. Could mean a malfunction in the equipment."

"I guess you're right."

"Why does this make you uncomfortable? It's good news."

"I know, I know, it's just…" The mechanic pinched the bridge of his nose, the charts he'd been reading dangling limply from his other hand. "I just wish we could do more than just wait for something bad to happen. I'm glad that nothing has, of course, but what about when—if—something does? How do we even know we're monitoring the right things? Someone could get hurt, and we might not even get what we need to stop it from happening again!"

"And?"

Blue eyes cracked open a sliver to stare at him. "Huh?"

"Listen, I understand what you're saying, but we've been over all this before. It's not worth stressing out about."

"How can you say that?"

"Easy. Stress never helped anyone. It wears you out and interferes with the thinking process. How do you expect to be able to deal with problems when they do show up if you're too tired from being stressed to think straight? Besides," he added, waving his arms in an expansive gesture indicating the world around them. "We're at the Red Diamond! Some people spend their whole lives wishing they could be where we are now. It would be a crime not to enjoy it."

Shinichi rolled his eyes. The thing about not stressing was that it was one of those things that it was easy to say but almost impossible to actually do. How Kaito could be so relaxed about the situation was the real mystery here. He said as much.

The taller teen shrugged. "At least save your worrying for the semifinals then. The Foundation's team already qualified. They have no reason to show their hand messing with the rest of the preliminaries. It would be stupid, and they don't strike me as the stupid type."

Shinichi made a noncommittal noise in the back of his throat, but he had to admit to himself that Kaito had a point. Giving the records one last look over in case he'd missed anything, he began to stack them back into the box they'd been delivered in. The box joined its eight predecessors in a neat pile on the floor of the coat closet. They were assembling quite the collection.

"What do you want for lunch?" he asked, returning to the table. "I can make pasta. I got the materials yesterday."

"Pasta sounds good. Can I help?"

"No, that's okay. You might want to spend some time reviewing the information on the semifinals that they just released. The rule book should have come in with the mail yesterday."

"Right." Rising from the couch, Kaito moved to rummage through the large paper bag they were using as a temporary depository for unread mail. The bag already overflowing with glossy advertisements and fan letters. Kaito smirked to himself. He had to find some time to read those. He fished around until his fingers encountered a much thicker package. The rule book had a simple black cover with shiny, red letters spelling out the words Red Diamond Semifinals. Book in hand, he returned to his seat. He didn't open it immediately though. Instead, he leaned back and watched as Shinichi moved about the suite's tiny kitchen.

"Shinichi?"

"Yes?"

"The last prelim race will be over in three days. I was thinking we could go have dinner somewhere nice to celebrate—just the two of us. How about it?"

"You're planning your celebration before the race? Isn't that a little premature?"

"Not really. I've already qualified. It wouldn't matter if I got last place in this last race—don't give me that look. I'm gonna give it my all like I always do. I'm just saying that if I get last place, it wouldn't change the fact that I'm headed for the semifinals. So? Dinner for two at the Skylark?"

A pink blush crept slowly up Shinichi's face. "But…the Skylark is only for couples."

"I know."

"O—oh." Shinichi stammered, blush darkening. His stomach squirmed in a strange but not entirely unpleasant way. He busied himself pouring the chopped ingredients into the pasta sauce.

"You don't mind, do you?"

"N—no."

Kaito's face broke out into a genuine smile. "Good, because I'd hate to have to call and cancel the reservation."

X

He knew that Kaito was going to be angry if he found out what Shinichi was doing, but the mechanic continued forward anyway. He felt like he'd hit a wall thinking about this from the bird's eye view provided by the monitor device's data and Hakuba's profiling. He needed more information—wanted to really understand who they were setting themselves up to go against.

So here he was. Before him stood the building where the Noir Foundation had its headquarters. It was a massive, marble and granite affair that screamed wealth from every corner. It was the kind of office building that needed its own tour guide. It loomed over its fellow buildings like a mountain over its foothills. If it had a name, it would probably be Goliath.

Okay. Shinichi took in a deep breath and imagined his nervousness leaving with the exhale. It didn't exactly work, but it did help him focus. Getting intimidated now would get him nowhere.

Squaring his shoulders, he marched up the very, very long flight of stairs to the massive, glass doors. Luckily, they were open. The doors were so large that he seriously doubted he would have been able to open them if they had been closed.

The lobby was just as outrageously large and luxurious as everything else. The front desk stood at the end of what looked like a mile of polished floor. Decorative plants spilled from artistic flowerpots and a fake waterfall filled the air with a soft, background gurgle.

It took Shinichi almost ten minutes to walk from the front door to the reception desk. There, a man in a black suit looked him up then down then up again before saying in a very slow and disinterested voice. "Do you have an appointment?"

"I met with Chris Vineyard a while ago. She told me to come find her if I was considering the offer she made to me and my friend."

"I see." The man gave him another, more intent look over before nodding. "You're the Kudo boy. A mechanic, correct?"

Surprised at being recognized by the receptionist of all people, Shinichi nodded. "Yes."

"Is your partner here too?"

"He has a lot of training to do today," Shinichi hedged. It wasn't a lie.

The man seemed to be weighing his options in his head. Eventually, he nodded. "Miss Vineyard is in today. If you'll wait here, I will inform her of your arrival. Whether she will see you, however, will be up to her."

"I understand. Thank you."

The man nodded and left for what appeared to be a back office attached to the lobby. Shinichi found himself a seat beside a potted plant whose fan-shaped leaves were so large that they could have been picked and used as blankets. It certainly was an interesting plant. He'd never seen anything like it.

"We found this beautiful specimen in one of the canyons around here. There are a lot of rare species out there—some that haven't even been discovered yet."

Shinichi managed to suppress the urge to jump. Instead, he turned around slowly to see the same blond woman he had met that day at the Black Diamond that now felt so long ago. He didn't like her smile any more now than he had then. It didn't improve matters any that he now knew the woman may have been responsible for Kaito's accident and possibly directly or indirectly involved with others.

He couldn't make himself smile at her, but he could at least maintain a professional politeness.

"Miss Vineyard," he said by way of greeting. "Thank you for seeing me."

The woman nodded as though this was only right. "If you'll follow me, it will be much more comfortable to talk in my office."

She led the way across the cavernous lobby's glossy floor to a bank of elevators. The doors opened almost instantly. It was a brief but silent ride up to the fourth floor.

"So," Chris Vineyard began as she sat down beside her desk. "I hear that you have decided to reconsider accepting our offer. May I ask what changed your mind?"

"Well, it's mostly because of these tag events," Shinichi explained. He had spent a lot of time the previous day brainstorming questions that she might have for him and coming up with appropriate answers. For the most part, he tried to stick as close to the truth as caution would allow. He was just more comfortable that way, and it was easier not to slip up. "We had to find a team to ally with this time just to be able to participate. And we've heard that they may become more common in other races in the future. Next time we might not be lucky enough to find people willing to be our partners."

"I see. So you're preparing for the future."

He nodded.

"I would've thought your partner would prefer to recruit his own members."

"He would, but we're also looking into the possibility of joining one because good, unattached members aren't easy to find."

"That is true." The woman's lips quirk in what appears to be amusement. "Since you are here, I assume you have questions."

"I was hoping you could tell me more about the conditions and benefits included in your offer."

"I have a copy of our standard contract right here." Pulling a manila folder from one of her desk drawers, she slid it across the table to him. "You are welcome to keep it. The clauses underlined in green are negotiable. The rest are not. Take your time," she added as Shinichi opened the file.

Blue eyes skimmed quickly over the pages. It appeared to be a fairly standard contract. It offered a variety of funding, legal, and technical support in return for loyalty to the foundation. The only part of the contract that stood out to him as unusual was the clause forbidding any communication with the media unless first approved by a special committee within the foundation.

"This mentions that we would be granted access to the Noir Foundation's private research centers and laboratories. Is that different from the equipment that you sell to the distributers?"

"Of course. Our members are always the first to have access to our innovations. For example, our racers were using the EX7 engines a year and a half before they were released to the distributers."

"What if we prefer our own equipment?"

"Then you will be wasting a golden opportunity. But of course, that is your choice. I understand that many of the parts your team uses is of your own design. We will not force you to exchange them for ours if you don't want to. However, we would ask that you share your designs with us."

Shinichi grimaced inwardly. He suspected that that was what the Foundation was really after, but he kept that thought to himself. "I'm not sure how Kaito will feel about that."

"It's understandable that he would be protective of his family's work. But consider this. We have entire teams of highly skilled scientists and mechanics working on developing and refining our technologies all the time. With their aid, you would be able to improve your own designs much faster than you would ever be able to on your own. Not to mention you would be able to combine our existing innovations with your own. Imagine what great things you could create with all those resources at your fingertips."

Shinichi nodded slowly. "I don't suppose you could give me some idea of the kind of technology you're working on now?"

"I'm afraid that's confidential."

He'd thought as much. "Do you have a lot of research centers?"

"Several. They allow teams to work with our researchers and still be able to participate in competitions at the same time. Of course, the biggest projects are still handled here at the main facility, but we have dozens of projects going all the time."

"That's thoughtful." He glanced down at the contract again. So he was right and there was a research lab right here. Would they let him in? Probably not. "Your foundation certainly does have a lot going on."

"Indeed we do."

"So if we did join you, but we find that we aren't exactly a perfect match…"

"We would, of course, do our best to work out the problem. However, due to the vast quantity of information and additional resources we offer, we require that all contracts be for at least a seven year term."

"That's a long time."

"And a lot of valuable information."

"I understand that you support multiple teams. Can you tell me more about how that works? Who decides which teams can race in what competitions?"

They talked for almost two hours. Shinichi made sure to mix in questions that a true potential contractee would want to know with the ones that he hoped would help him and Kaito with their investigations. He must have done a better job than he thought because Chris Vineyard offered to give him a tour of their hover craft hangar.

"I thought that would be confidential," he said before he could stop himself.

"Naturally, those parts of the facility will not be part of the tour."

So here they were.

This hangar was several times larger than the ones that the race committee had given to the participating teams. Owned and run by the Noir Foundation, it was meant to serve not only as a storage space for the vehicles their teams used but also a lab in which new hover technology was tested and new pilots were trained. It was a tech academy being run inside a hover craft hangar. Shinichi's jaw almost dropped at the miniature race track that occupied one quadrant of the floor.

"All of this is equipment that is in the final testing stages," Chris Vineyard explained. "Most of them will be on the market soon."

Intrigued despite himself, Shinichi craned his neck this way and that, trying to see everything at once. It was strange, but this buzzing hive of activity brought home the true extent of the Noir Foundation's size and influence much more sharply than the cold, distant grandeur of its main office. Here in the midst of this bustling metropolitan of a hangar, it really struck him just how small and insignificant he was. How could any one or even two people compare to this? They'd be squashed like insects under the foot of a giant. The giant wouldn't even have to try very hard.

Stop that, he scolded himself. Think like that, and he'd be lost before the starting bell rang. No one—not even a behemoth of a company—was infallible. There had to be a way to defeat them.

It wasn't just about the Red Diamond. It wasn't even about self preservation. It was about the late Kuroba Toichi and those like him, and it was about the future of all the men and women who loved and would come to love the world and art of hover racing. It was about justice, and it was about dreams.

Sharp, blue eyes swept over the orderly chaos once more as he listened to his guide outlining the many technological achievements of the Noir Foundation. He paused. That was interesting. There were several open hallways leading out of the hangar, possibly connecting it to other hangars or related facilities. Most of them had a constant stream of people flowing in and out of them, but there were three that were conspicuously deserted. Did they lead to areas that were not currently in use? It was a possibility, but it still seemed odd in the middle of this activity.

A passing trio of workers stopped when they spotted Chris Vineyard. They turned towards her, offering polite greetings before beginning to ask about a shipment of spare parts that apparently hadn't arrived on schedule and the laundry list of problems that delay had caused. Seeing the opportunity, Shinichi cleared his throat.

"Excuse me, Miss Vineyard, can I use your restroom?"

As he'd hoped, she rattled off a quick list of directions before returning to the heated debate which had taken a nasty turn into the 'who should be made responsible' department. Shinichi hurried off in the direction of the restroom. When he was sure he was out of sight, however, he turned and made a beeline for the first of the unused halls. This one had all its lights on full whereas its two fellows' lights had been dimmed. Shinichi glanced around to check that no one was watching him before ducking into the hall.

Spacious and immaculate as everything else he'd seen around the Foundation, the hall stretched on and on. It curved slightly, making it difficult to see too far along its length at once. The walls were a stark, lifeless white broken only by the occasional set of large, steel doors. These doors all had keycard readers set into the walls beside them. Whatever lay beyond them, it was clear that the public was not invited.

Should he turn back? If he was gone too long, the Vineyard woman would get suspicious. Shinichi bit his lip. This was probably the only chance he'd get to look around without a chaperone. On the other hand, getting caught nosing around could make their situation worse. The Foundation could charge him with trespassing. It might even get him and Kaito disqualified from the Red Diamond.

He'd give it a few more minutes. Then he had to get back to his guide. He couldn't risk getting the team kicked out of the competition.

Two minutes later, he was about to turn around when the walls and floor shook with a boom. He stumbled and had to snatch at the wall to keep from falling. What was that? It had come from farther down the hall…

Taking a deep breath, he crept forward, doing his best to make no sound.

Another hundred meters on, the hall opened out into what looked like an arena. There were empty bleachers running along one side of it. The majority of the floor was occupied by a simple, oval track. The two walls that had o seats attached had been covered with heavy, metal plates that were dented and scratched like they had seen the wrong end of many accidents. In fact, a fresh heap of twisted metal lay at the foot of one of the walls. If Shinichi had to guess, he'd say that the boom he'd heard earlier had been the scrap heap's demise.

Shinichi's stomach clenched. With a wreck like that, a pilot would be lucky to get out alive. There was no way whoever it was would be uninjured. What was going on here?

Tearing his gaze from the wreckage, he noticed a tall man with a mane of silver hair standing with his back to the hallway mouth. He had some kind of machine in his hands. It was rectangular and about the size of two large textbooks stacked on top of each other. Whatever it was was emitting a soft whirring sound.

"Bring in the next one," the man was saying into a small, portable mike connected to a headset. There was no verbal response that Shinichi could hear, but there was the sound of an engine. A hover racer hummed in from a portion of the arena that Shinichi couldn't see. It set itself down at a line marked out on the track facing the wall where the wreckage lay.

There was no one in the cockpit.

"Go," the man with the silver hair barked.

The hover racer's engines roared to life. An instant later it shot off down the length of the track. Halfway to the finish, however, it suddenly shut down. The engine died like someone had flipped a switch, and the entire thing went crashing to the floor. This one never even reached the wall.

Shinichi's breath caught in his throat. The sound was all but inaudible, but the man with the whirring box stiffened.

"Who's there?!"

Not waiting for the man to turn all the way around, Shinichi bolted.

TBC


A.N: Whew, I've had an exhausting week! Anyhow, the updating time got bumped forward because I finally put up the next Travelers chapter last time. So yeah, anyhow, I hope you enjoyed! ^_^